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While Sony's blockbuster slate has been pretty sluggish in the box
office, their horror label Screen Gems has enjoyed better success from
low-budgeted thrillers like Don't Breathe and two popular franchises,
Resident Evil and Underworld -the former releasing its sixth and final
chapter next January and Kate Beckinsale reprising her role as death
dealer Selene for the fifth time in the latter.
Picking up after the events of Underworld: Awakening which sees the birth of Selene's hybrid daughter, Eve. Underworld: Blood Wars opens with Selene being haunted by her own kind and Lycans as both sides are out to seek the blood of Eve. The Vampires are losing the war as the Lycans clan led by Marius (Tobias Menzies from Game of Thrones) is getting stronger by the day. On the pretext of seeking assistance from Selene, the scheming Semira (Lara Pulver) approaches her help to train a new batch of death dealers. Unbeknownst to her, an internal rife is brewing and Selene's only ally happens to be David (Theo James from Divergent), the son of Vampire Elder, Thomas (Charles Dance from Games of Thrones yet again).
German-born cinematographer (White House Down) and TV director (Outlander, Criminal Minds) Anna Foerster takes over the directing duties for this instalment. It is frankly a thankless task to take over a franchise that hardly wins over the critics over the years but Foerster does a commendable job balancing the story and insane action sets. For the relatively brief running time, Foerster and her screenwriters Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter) and Kyle Ward (Machete Kills) provides the various lead characters enough exposition and screen time for audiences to connect the dots at least for the first 45 minutes.
Besides being a family member to Selene, David is also on a journey to find out his true birth heritage that concerns his mysterious mother who left him after childbirth. The ambitious Semira and her aide cum lover Varga (Bradley James) plots to conquer the Vampire faction and Selene is constantly battling her own inner demons. On the Lycan side, the powerful Lycan leader Marius has a dark secret of his own. We are even introduced to the mysterious vampires residing in the cold Nordic coven. Honestly, you can't really blame the franchise for not trying to expand the Vampire mythos which in actual fact it actually does.
For Underworld fans who are hungry for more blood and gore, Underworld: Blood Wars has no lack of it. The last 45 minutes is an action- packed bloodletting orgy of sorts. Heads are sliced, countless shots are fired and it even boasts a WTF moment when two leads start firing at each other at close range. It's great to see some slick action choreography being displayed particularly the scene where Selene battles the transformed Marius on top of a frozen seabed.
Obviously because of time constraint and budget, CGI is favored over animatronic effects for the Lycans, which accounts for the weakest aspect of all. There is decent cinematography, excellent location shoot in Prague and rather impressive set designs. Best of all, Kate Beckinsale remains the draw in her ass-tight spandex. She seems not have aged a day since she first played Selene in the original 2004's Underworld, such that one wonders if she is really a death dealer in reality. For a dumb action fantasy, Underworld: Blood Wars certainly entertains, and obviously the franchise is very much opened to further developments.
It may wear its tag of being the first significant 'French-Chinese
co-production' proudly on its sleeve, but 'The Warrior's Gate' is
really no more than a rehash of another East-meets-West action comedy
that you may remember from about a decade ago called 'The Forbidden
Kingdom'. Like the latter, it sends an American teenager back to
ancient China where he learns to summon the warrior inside of him and
teams up with a noble companion to save a kingdom from the clutches of
an evil warlord. Like the latter, its humour is based on self-aware
anachronism and its action of the traditional 'wushu' variety. And last
but not least, like the latter, it lets its modern-day Caucasian male
protagonist fall in love with a steely yet gentle female from that era,
the inter-ethnic coupling not only to pander to the teenage demographic
but also to ensure its appeal to audiences on both sides of the
continent. And yet, if you're willing to put aside the obvious
similarities, you're likely to find this reiteration more entertaining
than you're expecting it to be.
Such faint praise however is also premised on little expectation at the start, which is a prerequisite for any manner of enjoyment. You should not, in the first instance, expect it to make much sense, for it gives scant regard to logic or coherence. As its hero Jack Bronson (newcomer Uriah Shelton) does, you should simply accept with little question that the English-speaking Chinese warrior Zhao (Mark Chao) in steel armour and straw hat who suddenly appears next to his bedside one evening has indeed travelled through a time portal in a waist-height drum-shaped chest he had received as a gift from the antiques dealer he helps out at after school. You should also accept the warrior's explanation that the young lady who shows up with him dressed like a princess (Ni Ni) is indeed one, and that she is on the run from some very terrible people. And while we're at it, you should accept that you are the hero they seek called 'The Black Knight' because that is the name of your avatar in a similar video game and not hesitate to journey back in time to fulfil your destiny. Like we said, disbelief is pointless if you intend to buy into its premise.
And so begins a fantasy adventure that sees Jack jump into the portal when said Princess Sulin is kidnapped by fierce-looking Mongol and Viking-like warriors and taken back to ancient China, where the barbarian named 'Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable' (or 'Arun the Cruel' in short, played by Dave Bautista) has arranged their forced marriage in order to become Emperor. Jack thus teams up with Zhao to journey across the undulating lands to Arun's lair, with some timely help here and there from a trickster wizard named Wu (Francis Ng) who may or may not have something to do with Jack's current predicament. Theirs is a buddy trip, where encounters with a vile mountain spirit (Kara Wai) and a trio of wicked witches (think Macbeth) will foster the bond of brotherhood between them, such that Zhao will come to teach Jack the basics of kung fu and Jack will impress upon Zhao how the latter's life could be a happier place if he simply learnt to have fun from time to time.
It is no mystery whether Jack and Zhao will rescue Princess Sulin in time before her fateful marriage with Arun, or for that matter if Jack will eventually turn out to be the valiant 'Black Knight' that prophecy had foretold. Neither the climactic rescue on the morning of the forced union nor the ensuing one-on-one between Jack and Arun will raise your pulse you've probably seen bigger, better and more exciting ones from China/ Hong Kong period war epics like this year's 'Call of Heroes'. Indeed, what's more notable is how director Matthias Hoene balances comedy and drama to keep the tone jocular without being satirical and thoughtful without being melodramatic. That is really more difficult than it looks, considering its far- fetched premise and the tendency of such East-West mishmashes to end up reinforcing the worst cultural stereotypes of each. It is these same sensitivities that inform the somewhat multiple endings, which suffice to say are specifically crafted in order not to land up forcing Jack and Sulin to choose his or her world over the other.
In the end, the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously is essentially why this potential misfire turns out a pleasant surprise by being mildly winning. Like we said at the start, we weren't expecting much from this rip-off of 'The Forbidden Kingdom', which was itself diverting but disposable entertainment. The same can be said of 'The Warrior's Gate', but at least not Hoene or its French co-writers (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) or its East-West cast deny. Heck, even the typical over-the-top villain such as Arun gets in on the fun with a running joke about his over-enthusiastic but dull right-hand man Brutus who keeps executing the wrong person. The young lead cast of Shelton, Chao and Ni Ni also have good chemistry between them, such that we root for the Shelton and Chao as well as Shelton and Ni Ni as buddies and lovers respectively from two different eras. As long as you keep your expectations right, you won't end up disappointed, which is pretty much already an accomplishment for a movie like this that you're probably thinking will bomb.
How do you make a 'Harry Potter' movie without Harry Potter? Before the
last of the eight films of J.K. Rowling's staggeringly popular universe
five years ago, that must have been the conundrum facing Warner
Brothers executives as they stared at the end of the line of their most
lucrative franchise. And yet thanks to Rowling herself as well as
series stalwart David Yates, there is once again new life to be found
in the world of witchcraft and wizardry that she had dreamt up in the
seven books of the boy wonder. The inspiration is one of Harry's
textbooks at Hogwarts, an essential text which served as a guide to
magical animals written by one Newt Scamander. Rowling had written it
into a companion piece in 2001, but as those who had read the 128- page
book will tell you, there is a lot more that Rowling must have had to
add to her first movie script even as an adaptation of that earlier
That explains why the film's narrative feels like two parallel story lines, both of which are set in the 1920s in New York City. The first (and the one more obviously drawn from her text) concerns the magizoologist and former Hogwarts student's (Eddie Redmayne) arrival with a suitcase of magical creatures in tow. He's here to do field work for the titular book that he's writing, but no thanks to a mix- up involving a klutzy working-class 'no-maj' (meaning 'muggle' or ordinary, non-magical human) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), some of the beasts Newt keeps hidden in his suitcase which is really a magical device enclosing a massive nature preserve have escaped. Together with two comely female wizards, the struggling investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt and Jacob set out to chase down these creatures before they wreak more havoc on the city.
And yet their blithe adventure could not have taken place in a more complicated time not only has the Magical Congress of the United States (or MACUSA in short) set out strict rules against the revelation of the existence of wizards and/or the wizarding world, its meticulously cautious Madam President (Carmen Ejojo) has outlawed the possession of all beasts. There is perhaps good reason though the city is torn by a mysterious force purportedly to be that of an Obscurus, a dark and uncontrollable power manifested by wizards who have repressed (rather than being taught to control) their innate powers. Rounding out the second, and much darker, story is a missing dark wizard called Gellert Grindelward (Johnny Depp), which the opening prologue via numerous newspaper reels informs us has gone underground since his dark doings in Europe. It's no secret that Grindelward and by extension, Depp, whom we see only briefly at the end of the movie, will take up much of the acreage of the four other 'Fantastic Beasts' films that Yates and Rowling have planned.
Given how this needs to set the stage for the beginning of a new franchise, there is understandably yards of exposition and a lot of introductions to do within the just-over two hours it has. It also means that, aside from its city-shaking cataclysm of a climax, this is pretty much like an origin story, such that like the first 'Harry Potter' movie, one gets the distinct sense that it is holding back for bigger and hopefully even more intriguing things down the road.
Not to say that this first of a quintet isn't charming in and of itself; oh no, in fact, we are confident that Potter fans and newcomers alike will find much to love and beguile of the rich and fascinating fictional world that Rowling has created. Indeed, there is sheer delight in discovering the menagerie of creatures that Newt has hidden in his briefcase among them a scene-stealing platypus with a penchant for stealing shiny things, a majestic avian which changes shape and size to fill any available space, and a tiny stick-like green insect that can pick locks. Before things get serious, the early scenes with Newt and his unlikely companions pop with escapist fun, not least when he and Jacob get caught in incriminating situations by law enforcement while pursuing their small, furry and oh-so-cute kleptomaniac around bank vaults and jewelry stores. It is also here that we get to savour more fully the effortlessly endearing Redmayne and Fogler, one quirkily adorable as the shy and slightly awkward boy-man and the other an unassuming bumbler whose wide-eyed wonder upon the world previously hidden from his eyes channels our very own.
Like how she did with Harry, Ron and Hermoine, Rowling gets a strong character dynamic going around the four cohorts, including a budding attraction between Newt and his Auror-turned-ally Tina as well as a gentle romance between Jacob and Queenie. It is these characters that anchor the busy plotting in the second hour with heartfelt emotion.
Even so, the beautifully ornate production design shines through every frame, whether a seedy underground jazz club with all manner of peculiar (if slightly grotesque) creatures to Manhattan's old City Hall subway station where the climax unfolds. The special effects are equally stellar, particularly the transition from our world to that inside the suitcase and a breathtaking scene where the Obscurus wrecks destruction across several of New York's skyscrapers before plunging into the City Hall station. And of course, the close-ups of the various beasts are just as visually stunning, some scary, some cuddly, some ethereal and some just downright goofy. Even without the appeal of adorable young children, 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' is pure enchantment, perfectly setting the stage for a whole new chapter of the wizarding world we've come to embrace through the 'Harry Potter' films. To call it fantastic may be slightly hyperbolic, but you'll be glad to know it doesn't fall too far short.
If you've never heard of L, Light, Kira, Misa, Ryuk or for that matter
the Death Notes, then we suggest that you catch up with the first three
movies of the 'Death Note' film franchise before watching this fourth
chapter. Oh yes, despite set ten years after 'Death Note 2: The Last
Name', this new instalment by 'Gantz' and 'I Am A Hero' director
Shinsuke Sato draws heavily from its predecessors among the key
members of the task force set up to investigate the new rash of Death
Note murders is Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu), an Interpol officer who has
inherited L's DNA and therefore not only his spiritual but also
biological successor; the main nemesis is also codenamed 'Neo Kira' (or
'New Kira'), after the nickname that Light uses to execute his own
brand of vigilante justice; and last but not least, there are
appearances by L, Light, Misa and Ryuk in both physical and digital
form to draw reference to their legacy from the earlier movies.
It is therefore somewhat inevitable that 'Death Note: Light Up the New World' is compared against the earlier Shūsuke Kaneko's duology, but unfortunately that comparison does no favours to this latest addition. Central to the thrill of the first two 'Death Note' movies was the battle of wits between L and Light, each of whom recognized the imperfections of the existing system of law and order but had fundamental disagreements over how to make things right and between them of course was the death god Ryuk, who had his own ambitions but was ultimately constrained by the rules governing the gods assigned to the 'death note(book)'. That same cerebral tension is sorely missing in this adaptation, which struggles to summon the same level of cleverness in the to-and-fro between Ryuzaki and Yuki Shien (aka the 'Neo Kira'); neither do we find the same exchange of intellectual plotting between Ryuzaki and his fellow bright-eyed investigator Tsukuru Mishima (Masahiro Higashide), who have their fair share of run-ins given the former's unconventional methods.
Worse, in trying to be smart, Sato and his screenwriter Katsunari Mano tie the narrative in some implausible twists and turns especially in the last half-hour. The so-called 'Neo Kira' turns out to be someone else. Mishima is not quite who he says he is. Ryuzaki 'cheats' death in a similar way that L used to trap Light. And one of Mishima's teammates turns out to be the vengeful sister of a victim who died at the hands of the 'Neo Kira'. As fast-paced as these revelations come, they come off unconvincing. Are we supposed to accept that Ryuzaki can just waltz into the Metro Police's headquarters and break Mishima out of detention, after he is accused by his superior of withholding critical information from the investigation? Are we supposed to accept that the both of them can then access the same headquarters' vaults to retrieve one of the 'death note(books)' the Police has managed to retrieve? Indeed, there is a blatant disregard for logic as the film tries to stay one step ahead of its audience, but the surprises are just too far- fetched.
Without sufficient character work between Ryuzaki, Mishima and Yuki Shien, it is pretty much left up to the plotting to sustain interest throughout its two-hours plus runtime. Admittedly, things do start off intriguing as not one but six notebooks are found to be circulating around the world which is the reason for a Russian prologue that sees a doctor discover one of them and unintentionally cause the death of one of his close friends/ patients but, for obvious budgetary reasons, these notebooks quickly and inexplicably find themselves in Tokyo, Japan, which the taskforce comprising of only Japanese is assigned to track down. A cyber-terrorism link that could have taken the story in a fresh new direction is also under- developed, such that the narrative is reduced to no more than a police procedural around the hunt for the 'Neo Kira'. There is a fair bit of excitement no doubt, but the fact that the proceedings unfold on a much smaller scale is inevitably disappointing.
Sadly too, the combined talent of Higashide, Ikematsu and Sada cannot quite make up for the considerable absence of Kenichi Matsuyama and Tatsuya Fujiwara (who had played L and Light respectively). There is a palpable sense of joy seeing them on the screen, which promptly evaporates once we realize that they are no more than cameos. The advances in CGI have made the 'shinigamis' (or 'death gods') look much more imposing and humbling though, including a white female one named Arma (voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro) that forms an intimate connection with Ryuzaki. But besides Ryuzaki and Arma, the bond between (notebook) bearer and god (including that between Yuki Shien and Ryuk here) is hardly fleshed out, lacking therefore the nuances which characterized that between Light and Ryuk in the previous two movies.
As an addition to the film franchise, 'Death Note: Light Up the New World' pales in comparison is probably the weakest next to 'L: Light Up the World'. There is no exposition on the philosophical conundrums of the Death Notes, of being able to judge and decide who lives and who dies, nor for that matter of how that power changes its wielder (as it did Light). There is also little intellectual machination that the earlier two films had, or character intricacies that made L and Light such complex and fascinating characters in their own right. In place is a fitfully exciting police procedural that only becomes more and more ridiculous as it tries to outwit itself, ending on a predictably open note that leaves the possibility of a sequel all but inevitable. Alas, its very title proves a misnomer not only does it not light up a new beginning, it pretty much casts a dull shadow on the franchise by expending much of the goodwill built up by its far superior predecessors.
Much to the disappointment of fans of the stylish period whodunit 'The
Bullet Vanishes', Nicholas Tse did not return to star with Sean Lau in
its sequel last year, so it is understandable that 'Heartfall Arises'
arrives with a fair amount of expectation of their reunion. Alas those
expecting a similarly smart and intriguing psychological thriller
between the pair of Hong Kong Best Actors will likely be severely
disappointed, as 'Heartfall Arises' is much, much less clever than it
thinks itself to be or wants to be. Not only is it clumsily plotted, it
is just as ineptly directed, which magnifies its narrative flaws and
turns entire scenes into caricature, notwithstanding the considerable
acting talent on display.
Based on a story by its director Ken Wu, the Gu Shuli-scripted film builds itself on the pseudo-scientific hypothesis on cellular memory, which posits that memories can be stored in individual cells. If you believe in that hypothesis, then you'll probably also buy the idea that an organ transplant may possibly change a recipient's personality and it is said that heart transplants are most susceptible to cellular memory. It is for this reason that criminal psychologist Calvin Che (Lau) believes Major Crimes Unit detective John Ma (Tse) to be the perpetrator behind the latest series of serial murders which boast the same modus operandi as that which occurred one and a half years ago, given that Ma had received the heart of the murderer who went by the alias 'The General' (Gao Venga).
As cliché would have it, Ma happens to be the one who had shot 'The General' in the head in the first place, which left him critically injured and therefore in need of the transplant. Despite being spared of the complication of rejection, Ma starts to experience visions that he cannot quite explain most often of a girl by the beach whom he appears to be dating. That girl is in fact the General's fiancé, whom Ma not only feels a surge of emotions after seeing but decides to date over hotpot. Just as well then that he has apparently acquired the General's taste for spicy food, which his girlfriend-doctor (Mavis Hee) points out earlier on in the film. Oh yes, as Che explains at the start to his class, cellular memory could lead to the recipient acquiring the donor's memories, tastes and impulses.
Could Ma also have inherited the General's murderous impulses? Wu hopes to keep his audience guessing as the cat-and-mouse game between the police and the killer comes down to one between Che and Ma, as he teases the revelation that Che had also gone for an organ transplant around the same time as Ma. As you've probably already predicted, Ma's tendencies are no more than a red herring, and given that the General is out of the picture most of the time, it is not difficult to figure out who the copycat killer really is. With that mystery pretty much solved halfway into the film, all that remains is understanding the culprit's motive, which unfortunately Wu and his writer Gu struggle but fail to come up with anything compelling or even convincing.
Most glaring is how the General's modus operandi in which he sends out a warning to his next victim, usually a wealthy business cum benefactor, and warns of his or her death hours later is somehow forgotten two-thirds into the movie. Suddenly, what was previously referred to as 'Robin Hood-style' killings becomes one of vigilantism, and worse terrorism, for no apparent reason than spectacle; the latter referring to the big-bang climax you've seen in the trailer of an explosion taking out the iconic IFC building in Hong Kong's Central district. That same lack of discipline explains the manner in which Wu has cobbled together disparate tricks in the genre playbook in the name of providing the story some twists and turns, even if they make little sense as a coherent whole.
All the while, Wu uses the motif of a chess game to describe the battle of wits the first time Che and Ma meet each other is at a game of chess in the hospital grounds where both are recuperating from their respective operations; Ma names the General's plan 'The Gathering of the Seven Stars', which chess players will know as a complex endgame composition; and last but not least, Che continuously reminds Ma after that initial meeting that they are due for a rematch someday. Yet not the numerous references to the chess stratagems nor the occasional Friedrich Nietzsche quotes can quite disguise the fact that there is little ingenuity to the General's plan and by extension to the film's plotting, which is further exacerbated by Wu's directorial inexperience or obvious missteps that run the gamut from poorly edited action sequences to embarrassing use of CGI to plain bad framing.
These flaws ultimately waste the combined acting talent of Lau and Tse, who somehow lack the spark that they had in their previous collaboration. Lau seems quite utterly bored, and Tse invests similarly little in a role that is too thinly defined. Their co-stars come off even more insignificant given how poorly sketched their characters are in particular, the romantic subplots that link Tong and Hee to Tse are so badly developed that they are downright pointless. What was intended as a smart psychological thriller turns out very much, much less so, not as laughably bad as some reviews have claimed but certainly one of the worst Hong Kong films we've seen this year. Like its title, 'Heartfall Arises' often turns out illogical and even dumb, what pulse it raises likely out of frustration than excitement.
Perhaps it is this writer's lack of knowledge on Marvel, but compared
to the other groups of superheroes created by the American comic book
publisher, such as the Avengers, X-Men or even the Fantastic Four, Dr
Strange honestly draws a blank. That said, with the current
proliferation of formulaic superhero movies, this unfamiliarity might
have actually help the latest movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe,
For the non-Marvel comics' readers, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a real doctor a neurosurgeon before getting into a horrific car accident that destroyed his hands and effectively ended his career. Unable to accept this result, Strange exhausted his resources trying to regain full control of his hands and in the process, alienated the only person who still cared for him, ex-lover Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). As a last resort, Strange journeyed to Nepal to find a cure at the Kamar-Taj, met the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), started to practice the mystic arts, and in the process, somehow did not regain full functionality of his hands.
Just like how *Deadpool* was a breath of fresh air compared to the Avengers and X-Men series, Dr Strange was a departure from the angst- filled drama of its more established counterparts. Instead, the movie showcased its free-spirited 1960s origins, bringing to mind the trippy LSD-taking, orient-obsessed, self-proclaimed mystic bohemian vibe stereotypical of that era. This was put on full display when Strange first arrived at Kamar-Taj, and was forced on a roller-coaster ride through dimensions, galaxies and worlds. There is only that much of psychedelic-ness one can take before getting turned off by the kitsch, and the movie thankfully pushes that boundary but does not go pass it. On the other hand, what really made the 3D effect pop was, in my opinion, the fight scenes where the characters manipulate buildings and structures, bringing to mind the dreamscapes from *Inception* but with prettier, more symmetrical set design. If this is not your thing, perhaps just skip the 3D option.
As for the protagonist, Stephen Strange also fits nicely between the crass and never-serious Deadpool, and the overly stoic and tortured Captain America. Despite all his failings selfishness, arrogance and stubbornness Strange never quite felt like the high-performing genius and jerk he actually was. Kudos to Cumberbatch for that, who perhaps had more enough practice for the role while playing other socially awkward but brilliant people (Stephen Hawking and Sherlock Holmes in TV series *Hawking* and *Sherlock*, and Alan Turing from *the Imitation Game)*. As Strange gets increasingly proficient in the mystic arts, his character does change to someone more compassionate and open-minded, but never losing his snark, as evidenced by how he saved the day. This consistency probably contributed to the character's likability, and was the most real/ convincing thing that would happen in a superhero movie.
With the movie's overwhelming focus on Strange, the other characters were relegated as Strange's sidekicks and support team. McAdam's Dr Christine Palmer made use of what little screen time she had to aid and heal Strange, although McAdams could probably do nothing and still be likable; Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo was the good-natured and straight- laced teaching assistant, whose rigid personality probably made him the most disillusioned by the Ancient One's doings; and for all the cries of whitewashing, Swinton does an admirable job playing the mystical and otherworldly Ancient One.
For the Marvel fans this review would probably not change your mind on this movie. So for the non-Marvel fans out there (like me), the movie was an entertaining departure from the other superhero movies throughout the year, and worth the watch even if it is to tide you *Sherlock* fans over until next year.
After committing papal heresy in 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'Angels and
Demons', renowned Harvard University symbiologist Robert Langdon is in
arguably less controversial territory with 'Inferno', which sees him
pitted against a crazed billionaire geneticist who has invented the
titular doomsday virus to wipe out half of the world's population. To
be sure, Langdon will not come face to face with the madman named
Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) not only does a pre- credits sequence
establish Zobrist's obsession with humanity's imminent demise through
overpopulation, it also shows the man pursued along the streets of
Florence, Italy, and finally throwing himself off a bell tower.
Instead, Langdon finds himself plunged into the world of 14th century
Italian poet Dante Alighieri's 'The Divine Comedy' with a series of
apocalyptic visions that accompany his apparent head trauma from a
gunshot wound, which also causes him to suffer from mild retrograde
Or so his doe-eyed helpmeet doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) claims, who after saving him from a female carabineri Vayentha (Ana Ularu) in hospital, seems all too willing to be his sidekick sleuth in uncovering a series of clues that will lead them to the virus, beginning with a 'Faraday pointer' containing an altered image of Botticelli's 'Map of Hell' illustration. The trail will lead them across exotic locations in Florence from the Boboli Gardens to the Palazzo Vecchio to the Florence Baptistry and Venice before finally culminating in Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. To make things more exciting of course, Langdon finds himself the target of multiple competing parties, including the World Health Organization director- general Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), her possibly rogue gang of heavily-armed operatives led by Christoph (Omar Sy), and last but not least the ace fixer Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) of a shadowy consortium.
As much as the chase does lend itself to some big-screen cinematic thrills, Dan Brown's Langdon series were probably more suited for the page, seeing as how lengthy chunks of exposition were devoted to educating its readers on the myriad historical references that served as an intricate web of clues for its protagonist. To screenwriter David Koepp's (returning from 2009's 'Angels and Demons) credit, he has effectively streamlined Brown's novel into an effective race-against-time mystery thriller that stays true to the essence of its source. Fans of the book will no doubt draw their comparisons (and let's just say that there are some significant deviations, most prominently the bleak ending which probably would come across too nihilistic for a mainstream audience), but the distillation complete with reversals, flashbacks and a midway twist has enabled Ron Howard (who also directed the earlier two adaptations) to produce his most pacey instalment yet of the three- quel.
Oh yes, 'Inferno' is probably the least faithful of them, though arguably for the better. Unlike the plodding 'Da Vinci Code', the first hour moves at an almost breathless pace as Langdon and Sienna go from gallery to gallery tracing Zobrist's steps as well as figuring out the allegiance of the assorted figures that seem bent on acquiring the virus. Howard also injects a stronger stylistic audacity to 'Inferno' than his 2006 and 2009 predecessors, in particular in his imagining of the hellish visions that Langdon is plagued with that of white- eyed lepers kneeling by the roads, sorcerers with their heads twisted around, and streets covered in rivers of blood. Perhaps the only time his film comes up for air is just before the explosive finale set in a red subterranean Turkish bath, with a romantic subplot between Langdon and Sinskey expertly played by two accomplished actors for all that it is worth. Howard also gives some room for the consortium's enigmatic Provost to impress with his wryness and spryness in the latter half, which Khan reciprocates with a ripe but fun performance.
Because 'Inferno' was never made or meant to be character-driven, it rests squarely yet again on Hanks' shoulders to make his character appealing. Indeed, Langdon was never an immediately likable person; in fact, his self-aware intellect quite often turns into self- absorbed pomposity. Yet the ultra-genial Hanks downplays these characteristics for a down-to-earth, sometimes even self- deprecating, portrayal that makes Langdon amiable companion over the film's two hours. Truth be told, the popularity of Dan Brown's super-tourist semiology thrillers with their initially refreshing high-minded emphasis on art and culture has somewhat faded in the decade since, but 'Inferno' is still a sufficiently exciting mystery thriller in its own right, thanks to Howard's sure-handed direction and Hanks' ever-reliable presence. If, as its tagline suggests, 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'Angels and Demons' were just the beginning, then you'd be glad to know that this third Ron Howard adaptation of the Dan Brown series is certainly bigger and better.
There was a time when Wong Jing was funny. That time, unfortunately, is
over, as audiences discovered over the dreadfully unfunny 'From Vegas
to Macau III' earlier this year. 'Mission Milano' is his first movie
after that disaster though he has written two other equally dreary
films (namely, 'iGirl' and 'Girl of the Big House') and it is only
marginally better. At the very least, there is a somewhat coherent plot
to string together the mostly infantile gags, which involves Andy Lau's
Interpol Agent Sampan Hung (whose Chinese name is洪金寶) teaming up with
Huang Xiaoming's billionaire entrepreneur Louis Luo to stop a Japanese
criminal organisation Crescent from selling the latest bio- technology
known as the 'Seed of God' to a terrorist conglomerate KMAX. And yet,
this globe-trotting spy spoof is ultimately done in by Wong Jing's
sloppy writing and slapdash direction, which not even the stars with
their palpable charisma can redeem.
As much as it draws its name from the Italian city, 'Mission Milano' only spends at most a third of its time in it, hopscotching from Paris (where Andy gets one of the rare bright spots of the film fighting an unknown assassin dressed as a French maid), to Hong Kong (where he is given his current assignment by his reticent boss played by Shen Teng), to Shanghai (where he recruits Louis to help him retrieve the 'Seed of God'), to Macau (upon sighting of one of KMAX's cronies Iron Hawk), to Milan (where Crescent plans to sell the technology it stole to KMAX), and lastly to Central Europe (where KMAX operates from its military base complete with its own runway). All that running around from city to city is really no more than an excuse for Wong Jing to stage one lame stunt after another against a different backdrop, but there is no disguising just how juvenile, scattershot and derivative these supposedly amusing gags really are.
Stealing first from James Bond, Wong Jing gives Lau's Agent Sampan Hung the code number 119, decorates his superior's office with the signature 'gun barrel' backdrop, and then assigns him a weapons specialist called Bing Bing to equip him with an iPhone to help him on the field by shooting fire and shock needles. Along the way, Wong Jing continues to 'borrow' far better-executed ideas from elsewhere including sonic guns from 'Minority Report' that Crescent uses at Haitian Technologies to capture the 'Seed of God', laser-beam fortified corridors from 'Resident Evil' that Crescent uses to secure the technology, an 'Initial D' race sequence down a narrow dimly-lit hillside road at night, a Jedi Knight light sabre that Agent Sampan pulls from his phone/ weapon-of-choice against Iron Hawk, and last but not least Wolverine claws that Crescent uses against Agent Hung, Louis and fellow Interpol agent Phoenix (Michelle Hu) in a mid-air finale that Wong rips from his own 'From Vegas to Macau II'.
Most of these 'appropriated' jokes do not last long largely because Wong Jing lacks the conviction and creativity to make them pop but the running gags are not much better. One pokes fun at Louis' mother's (Petrina Fung) early-onset dementia, which plays out as her mistaking Louis' buddy Amon (Wong Cho-Lam) as the family dog Meatball and mistaking a goldfish bowl for a bowl of fish soup that she has prepared for Louis. Another has Agent Sampan, Louis and Amon taking turns to charm Crescent's head of security Sophie (Evonne Sie) in order to get an image of her iris to unlock the facility where the 'Seed of God' has been stored, which leads to an over-the- top sequence where Louis spits vodka laced with Tabasco sauce into Sophie's eyes to get her to remove her contact lens. There is no doubt it is all slapstick, but Wong Jing sets his own bar too low that the comedy ends up infantile.
Character work has never been Wong Jing's strong suite, and 'Mission Milano' proves no different. Lau's Agent 119 is all over the place, suave because it fits his mug yet seemingly insecure in the face of danger. Especially incongruous is a subplot that sees his character struggling to decide whether to call his estranged wife whom he misses, an otherwise pointless addition that pays off only for the last- minute cameo of Sammi Cheng as his spouse. Xiaoming does most of the kung- fu fighting (on account possibly of Lau's relative age), and is called on additionally just to look debonair throughout. Hu's silver-haired Interpol spy is intriguing at the start, but proves just as flat as the two lead male characters as the movie progresses. Ditto for Amon and Louis' other sidekick, Ka Yan (Nana Ouyang), whose supporting roles are even more paper-thin, and except for their introductory sequence where they tag-team to test Louis' fighting skills, are pretty much non-existent.
Even by Wong Jing's standards, 'Mission Milano' ranks as one of his more disposable entries in addition to forgettable plotting and characters (which is generally true of most of his movies), there is a distinct lack of wit or humour in most of the gags. Only because the narrative is less incoherent does it fare better than Wong Jing's last spectacular misfire, but like we said at the start, that doesn't mean that the prolific (and some say infamous, if you loathe his 'mo lei tau' style) director has regained his comedic mojo. For Andy Lau's fans in particular, his latest collaboration following 'From Vegas to Macau III' depletes even more of their goodwill, and we'd hope for the sake of his reputation as an actor that his next which sees him reprise one of his iconic roles Lee Rock will be a creative rebound for himself as well as for his writer-director Wong Jing (again).
Tim Burton would seem the perfect candidate to direct the big-screen
adaptation of Ransom Riggs' bestselling young-adult novel of the same
name after all, Burton's beloved creations the likes of Beetlejuice,
Edward Scissorhands, Jack Nicholson's Joker and Johnny Depp's Ed Wood
have each been defined by their respective peculiarities. It is
therefore no surprise that the titular kids are an impressively
eccentric bunch, including an adorable little girl with a hungry jaw at
the back of her head, a brooding teenage boy who can animate non-living
objects and dead creatures, another relatively more good-natured
teenage boy who stores bees in his stomach, a pair of twins who look
like dolls and hide their faces under canvas sacks, and a teenage girl
who can control air and wears ornamented lead boots to keep her from
floating away into the sky. There is a little Burton in each one of
these delightfully quirky individuals, and it is no surprise that they
are the primary source of the film's joy.
Just as delightful is Eva Green's eponymous headmistress, played with just the right balance of wit, whimsy and lunacy. Her peculiarity is her temperament flinty and authoritarian when enforcing her insistence on strict punctuality and yet sensitive and motherly when looking after her children's emotional wellbeing as well as her abilities as an ymbrine, she is not only able to transform into a falcon but also manipulate time, the latter of which she uses to create time-loops to protect her 'peculiars'. Unlike Burton's go-to actor Johnny Depp, Green steps into her role with delicious relish without sucking up all the air, shining without overshadowing her teenage ensemble. Burton also creates an enchanting villain in the form of shape-shifting, pointy-toothed Barron for the reliably bad-assed Samuel L. Jackson to sink his teeth into, his character one of the bad 'peculiars' called a 'wight' who feasts on eyeballs and hopes to kidnap Miss Peregrine to steal her temporal powers.
Over the course of his four-decade career, Burton has established himself as one of the rare filmmakers with a clear, distinctive style for artisanal creepiness and there is no doubt seeing the mix of weird and wonderful that it is well-suited to this material. Even so, Burton has always been a better visual stylist than a storyteller, which is precisely where his latest falters. Like the book, the story unfolds through a 16-year-old teenager named Jake (Asa Butterfield) who lives in present-day Florida, still reeling from the death of his grandfather (Terence Stamp) and obsessed with the stories that the elder had told him about a strange orphanage on an island off the coast of Wales. There is a lot of exposition in the first half-hour to set up Jake's discovery of the children's home, and yet curiously not enough to root us to his emotional loss and corresponding desire for closure.
That missing connection becomes even more apparent as Jake struggles to find his place with his newfound company. Should he make a new home with the children at the orphanage, consigning himself to living in a permanent loop of the 24 hours before the bomb by the Germans destroys the home? Or should he return to the life he knows? Before the arrival of the scenery-chewing Barron, Jake's dilemma pretty much drives the narrative; and yet, the film's most important 'peculiar' (oh yes, there is good reason why Jake should discover the home) is ironically its dreariest, as a consequence not only of dull character work but also of a flat and affectless performance by Butterfield. It also explains why despite the delectable weirdness of Jake's companions, the movie remains curiously lethargic, especially when it shuffles from past to present to let Jake catch up with his bird-watching dad (played by Chris O'Dowd with a wobbly American accent).
Thankfully, things get considerably more exciting during the last third when Jake steps up to lead the rescue mission to save Miss Peregrine from being devoured by Barron. Their mode of transport is a sunken ship which one of the characters resurfaces from the depths of the ocean by literally blowing the water out of the vessel. The barnacle-encrusted ghost ship eventually docks at Blackpool's North Pier for the action- packed finale set in present-day, where a series of CG stop-motion battles involving faceless tentacled creatures called 'hollowgasts' including one with an army of Ray Harryhausen skeleton warriors offer a gloriously wacky yet thrilling finish. The time-travel element does threaten to get unnecessarily twisty at times, but Burton manages to keep it fascinating and end on a charming note with an epilogue that sees Jake travel across continents and time to be with one of the girls from Miss Peregrine's home whom he fancies from the start.
As a film that bears the Tim Burton name, 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' is replete with his twisted touches not only in terms of grotesquerie (think a platter of eyeballs with their tendrils intact, slurped up like spaghetti and meatballs) but also in singular surreal images (one that stands out is Jake tugging one of the girls down the beach as she floats above him like a balloon on a string). Burton ensures that the production looks great from cheerfully drab Floridian bungalows to elderflower-and-wisteria-toned monochrome thickets, the sets are terrific and the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnelis lovely. Yet the storytelling is staid where it should be riveting, detached when it needs to be engaging, and conventional when it could be spooky and exciting, which is somewhat to be expected when you look at Burton's oeuvre and yet inevitably still mildly disappointing.
As well-intentioned as his inspirational youth cycling drama 'To the
Fore' may have been, we'd much prefer Dante Lam's character-driven yet
action-packed cop dramas 'The Stool Pigeon', 'Beast Stalker' and even
the under-appreciated 'That Demon Within'. It should therefore be
relief to his fans that Lam is returning to familiar territory with his
latest, based upon the Chinese government's response to the real-life
incident often referred to as the 'Mekong River Massacre' in which a
special narcotics investigation was assembled to enter the Golden
Triangle to arrest the notorious drug lord Naw Khar and his compatriots
responsible for the killing of 13 Chinese fishermen and crew on board
two merchant vessels. And true enough, Lam does not disappoint not
only does 'Operation Mekong' represent his return to large-scale hyper-
kinetic action cinema, it is his most ambitiously action-packed movie
ever and will quite likely be one of the best action movies you'll see
True to its title, the focus is on the covert operation led by Captain Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu), a no-nonsense hard-nosed anti-narcotics officer handpicked by the Home Affairs Minister. Except for an opening prologue that tells of the devastating impact of the drug habit in Chinese society and introduces the Golden Triangle as a key producer of the narcotics, there is no attempt at social commentary. Nor does the film try to portray the politics involved, aside from mentioning the multi- national task force that was set up among China and the three aforementioned Southeast Asian nations in the days following the massacre to conduct joint patrols of the Golden Triangle and the titular river. Whether to avoid becoming propaganda or risk becoming a flashpoint in complex geopolitics, Lam and his four co-writers steer clear of the vagaries surrounding the unilateral move by the Chinese government to sanction its officers sent under the guise of the multi- national task force to bring the criminals to face trial back in China than in any of the other countries.
Brought to the fore (pun intended) instead is the intricacies of the operation, as Gao's elite squad teams up with locally based intelligence officer Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng) to identify the location of Naw Khar's base deep in the jungles of the Golden Triangle Special Region. That entails trying to rescue one of Naw Khar's men Yan Taung Pha responsible for setting up the deal that led to the massacre, which inadvertently exposes Xinwu's informant Gong Chai; when that fails, posing as a rich businessman looking to use Naw Khar's drugs to complement a new casino venture; and by doing so, getting closer to Naw Khar's inner circle, in particular his son Naw Htuu, to extract that crucial piece of information in order to apprehend Naw Khar.
Each one of these three new leads is opportunity for Lam to stage a high-octane action set-piece (with impressive direction by Tung Wai) first, a breathless foot chase through a claustrophobic market and a busy train station that turns into a jaw-dropping car chase complete with gunfights and RPGs; then, a shootout in a crowded mall which ensues in mass chaos and a tragic outcome for one of Gao's men; and finally, the all-out assault on Naw Khar's jungle lair that culminates in a spectacular boat chase along the Mekong River. Lam's insistence on realism, whether in terms of sets or props, ensures that every one of these elaborate sequences looks, sounds and feels real and thrilling. Coupled with that is his flair for build-up prior to the mall shootout for instance are gripping parallel theatres of events, one led by Gao masquerading as businessman Mr Qian meeting Naw Khar's number- three Ya Ta and the other led by Gao's man Wenfeng trailing the bag of money used for the exchange which accentuates the tension and sheer white-knuckle suspense of each major sequence.
Compromised in the process is character detail or development, which frankly is somewhat of a pity. The most we learn about Gao aside from his solid leadership of his team is through a few occasional scenes where he looks at videos of his young daughter and one where he shares with Xinwu that the tolls of his job have led to his divorce years earlier. Xinwu gets a tragic backstory with Xing Deng which leads to questions about his ability to remain objective during the operation, but that little history hardly builds to anything compelling. The rest of Gao's team are defined only by their unique skills as well as by their Greek God-code names. There are also no shades of good and evil here, such that Gao and his men are uniformly heroes whereas Naw Phar depicted as an over-the-top villain who snorts heroin and laughs when his child soldiers blow their own brains out playing Russian roulette is unquestionably to be despised.
There is never any doubt that Lam has set out to make a wall-to-wall action movie, and on that count, he succeeds tremendously. Mind you, this is not some Hollywood B-movie, but one where every gunfight, car chase and explosion is choreographed with panache, adding up beautifully to a single movie that has nary a dull moment. Unlike his peers who have taken on similar subjects (such as Johnnie To in 'Drug War' or Derek Yee in 'Protégé'), Lam isn't taken so much by the fallouts of the drug business or its victims notwithstanding the brief nod to the limbless villagers punished for disobeying Naw Khar's orders as he is on the complexities and minutiae of the clandestine operation that helped bring to justice one of the biggest criminal kingpins in the Golden Triangle. If you accept 'Operation Mekong' on its terms, you'll find this one of the most exhilarating movies of the year, an accomplishment which cements Lam's reputation as the foremost Hong Kong director for big-scale action cinema.
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